The Boston Symphony’s next triptych of concerts is organized under the rubric, “A Fragile Peace: Between the Wars”. Each program will feature works from a particular place, with links to America. Germany of the interwar years is the focus of the first installment with works by Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill, (both of whom fled Nazi persecution and became US citizens), complimented by a chamber piece from Afro-American composer, Florence Price (1887–1953), first written circa1920, but not definitively set until 1951.

Giancarlo Guerrero
© Hilary Scott

Thanks to Serge Koussevitzky’s commission, Hindemith joined the likes of Copland, Prokofiev, Ravel and Stravinsky to contribute one of ten new pieces celebrating the BSO’s 50th anniversary. His Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass received its world premiere at Symphony Hall 90 years ago next month. The writing is lean with an occasional rhapsodic interlude and driven by intricate counterpoint. Brass and strings vie for dominance, one often trying to subvert the other when it takes the lead. The brass start out slow, loud and assertive against the leaps and bounds and dotted rhythms of the strings.

Giancarlo Guerrero deftly managed the sudden switch to a slower tempo which finds the strings taking up the brass melody and the brass reduced to the occasional chord before rallying to reassert themselves in a blaze of light and power. He also maintained balance. The brass never overwhelmed the strings and their arguments remained distinct and piquant. The second part, which begins as a fleet-footed fugue initiated then punctuated by three emphatic chords, was a virtuoso romp for the strings. As the tempo broadened and the scurrying yielded to a lyrical and elegiac interlude, the brass endeavored to break the mood with biting asides, but the strings silenced them with a return to the initial rapid tempo and fugal counterpoint. Abandoning asperity, the brass decided to join in the festivities, interrupting with a celebratory fanfare which led to a concluding grand coda of affirmation. Like many commissions, Konzertmusik is a showpiece for the sections it involves, but, as this performance demonstrated, its conversational structure brings with it a dry wit and rich dynamic which sets it apart.

Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

“Come to the Cabaret: Wild Berlin Between the Wars” with narration by Susan Graham set the scene for Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik. He employed seven playing a total of 23 instruments in the original production. The suite calls for an ensemble of 17, mostly winds and brass with the addition of accordion, banjo and piano. Fifteen instrumentalists fanned out across the stage with the harp and percussionist’s drum kit and tubular bells across the hall from each other in the first balcony. Had he lived to see the popularity of Mack the Knife, Weill might well have revisited his decision to pair the Moritat with the Instead-of Song in one of the shortest settings. Otherwise, each song stood alone save for the Finale which incorporated three. Guerrero could have leaned more into the bluesy quality of some of the dance rhythms but he didn’t miss the tang and ennui woven into Weill’s score.

In 2009, a couple renovating an abandoned house in St Anne, Illinois discovered a trove of documents including dozens of scores. They were Florence Price’s, whose summer residence the house had once been. This was a major find. Though Marian Anderson performed her settings of spirituals and the Chicago Symphony premiered her Symphony no. 1 in E minor in 1933, the majority of her compositions remained unpublished and lost. The couple donated the trove to the University of Arkansas, where, six years later, the Apollo Chamber Ensemble came across the manuscript for Five Songs in Counterpoint, created a score and performed it.

Symphony Hall, Boston
© Hilary Scott

While Hindemith and Weill would enrich their music with touches of jazz and the blues, Price’s songs are the springboard for a inventive, playful, concentrated display of classical compositional technique through the use of counterpoint and the subversion of string quartet hierarchies.

The BSO quartet omitted the spiritual Calvary and began with Clementine which establishes Price’s pattern – individual instruments playing recognizable melodic fragments which are then passed around in virtuoso theme and variations fashion, transforming the song into something barely recognizable before returning to some semblance of the original. They gave each song the distinct quality Price demands – Clementine a sad lament, Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes a hymn, and Shortnin’ Bread a fleeting, syncopated joy ride. Swing Low Sweet Chariot began softly and solemnly with the cello introducing the soulful melody followed by the viola, second, then first violin, but eventually built to a jubilant conclusion, ending the performance with the bravura flourish of a classic coda.

This performance was reviewed from the BSO NOW video stream